Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains
by Jan MacKell, University of New Mexico Press, 458 pages Women who offer their sexual favors for financial gain have been regarded with wildly varying views in different eras and cultures. Temple prostitution was an integral part of worship in ancient religions. As a class, the hetaerae of classical Greece made their mark with wit, poetry, and philosophical discussion as well as lovemaking. The courtesans of Japan’s Edo period, the oiran, were regarded as working specialists, with no stigma attached to their activities.
But in 19th-and early 20th-centuryWestern cultures, especially Victorian England and America, “fallen women” were considered the lowest of the low, no matter their social standing. As Anthony Trollope has an outraged father declaim in The Vicar of Bullhampton, when his straying daughter begs to be allowed to return to the family home, “In all the whole world, there is no thing so vile as a harlot.” As for most “honest” women’s opinion of their soiled-dove sisters in those days, the less said the better.
This fine book offers a different look at doxydom during the opening up of the American West and after. Frontier cultures are notably tolerant or at least accepting, and in those tough and dangerous days, the local madam was often a person of great consequence, not to mention wealth. In the best cases, her girls were both well-treated and professional, though exceptions certainly occurred. The drunken slattern who robbed or murdered her customers was not pure fiction.
Jan MacKell researched her subject thoroughly and writes about it well, exploring an unusual topic with a nice mix of scholarship and gusto. She discusses the societal aspects of prostitution and how it affected moral atmosphere from the early 1800s on into the mid-20th centuries; but she does so in context of the open ranges and high peaks of the areas in and around the Rockies and in context of many individual women whose records she has found.
In this survey of brothels, red-light districts, and those smaller apartments (rather than houses) of assignation known as cribs, MacKell ranges wide. She starts off with a chapter on “The Pioneering of Prostitution” to set the stage — or make the bed, so to speak— and shows how the mostly male restless push westward fueled the rise of both amateur and professional prostitution. Using appropriate nicknames from sexual history for fallen flowers, she then discusses “Amazons of Arizona,” “Courtesans of Colorado,” “Illicit Ladies of Idaho,” “Madams and OtherWomen of Montana,” “Nubians of New Mexico,” “The Undoing of Utah’s Soiled Doves,” and “WickedWomen ofWyoming.” Her final chapter is tantalizingly titled “Where Did They All Go?,” and you may be surprised at some of the answers.
For local readers, New Mexico’s madams and girls will be of special interest. The legendary Doña Tules of Santa Fe is here, as well as the fascinating Lizzie McGrath of Albuquerque and that astute Silver City businesswoman Millie Cusey, who owned brothels in Lordsburg, Deming, and Hurley; a ranch in Arenas Valley; property in El Paso; and a bordello in Laramie. An orphan, she came to New Mexico in the 1920s and, as MacKell wryly notes, after working as a Harvey Girl, learned “that prostitution was a much more viable way to make money.”
It was dangerous, though. Cusey’s violent run-ins with some of her many customers, several lovers, and one of her three husbands were perilous to flesh and bone. MacKell cites one instance when husband number two, Ben Harker, stabbed her in the leg as she slept. Cusey pulled the blade out of the wound, thrust it into her spouse’s back, and as she chased Harker down the street yelled to a neighbor, “Mr. Trujillo! Mr. Trujillo! Catch that thieving son-of-a-bitch! He stole my knife!” Harker had also broken one of Cusey’s arms earlier, MacKell reports, after she had tried to drown him in a septic tank. Incidentally, Cusey— who died at 81 in 1993— once answered the where-did-they-go question thusly: “How can we charge for the same thing the college girls give away for free?”
Besides the telling narratives of the wellplotted chapters, there are 81 photos or images — the one of the very plump and pleasing Lou Bunch of Central City, Colorado, is a gem— as well as several appendices, a detailed set of notes that also functions as a bibliography, and a copious index. This book is highly recommended indeed for its rare subject, its fluent treatment, and the enjoyably informative writing.
— Craig Smith